HL Deb 08 July 1997 vol 581 cc593-6

6.54 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office (Lord Sewel)

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 24th June be approved [5th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the draft order is presented in accordance with the requirements of the Industrial Organisation and Development Act 1947. Its purpose is to wind up the affairs of this purely Scottish body in recognition of the recent establishment of a new GB Potato Industry Development Council.

It might be helpful if I first briefly rehearsed some of the background to this issue. The Scottish Seed Potato Development Council was first established in 1981 to promote and develop the market for Scottish seed potatoes both at home and overseas. Since that time it has given excellent service to Scots seeds growers and merchants, promoting this extremely high quality Scottish product world-wide. Uncertainty over the Council's future began in December 1993 when the then Ministers agreed to dissolve the Potato Marketing Board. Resultant restructuring in the potato industry has ultimately led to the dissolution order now before you.

A statutory review of the SSPDC (as it is more commonly known) took place in 1995 and extended the Council's life for a further two years while proposals for a successor body to the Potato Marketing Board were discussed. This allowed Scottish growers and merchants time to consider whether their interests would be best served in the future in a GB context or by a separate Scottish body.

A poll of Scottish-registered seed growers carried out in April of last year voted 61 per cent. in favour of a GB body.

In February this year your Lordships approved an order establishing a new GB potato industry development council, now called the British Potato Council. This body has now taken over some of the functions of the Potato Marketing Board, which was dissolved on 30 June this year.

To protect the often separate and largely Scottish interests of the seed potato sector, Ministers agreed to provide for a statutory seed sectoral group as part of the new council. This group will offer advice and recommendations to the main council on all seed issues. It is chaired by a specialist Scots seed grower and has helped to offer reassurance to the Scottish industry that their needs will be adequately catered for in this new GB body.

As required by Sections 8(1) and 1(3) of the Industrial Organisation and Development Act 1947, a consultation exercise was carried out requesting views on the dissolution of SSPDC. I can confirm that all representative Scottish bodies consulted, including the chairman and members of SSPDC, have agreed to dissolution in favour of the British Potato Council. Credit for this unanimity must go to the Potato Marketing Board and other industry organisations who for more than three years put immense effort into developing proposals for a successor body which would be acceptable to all industry sectors.

I will now turn briefly to the dissolution order itself and bring two points in particular to your Lordships' attention.

First, although a power has been provided in Article 5 which would allow the Secretary of State to impose an additional levy to cover any shortfall in funds, I should point out that this power is unlikely to be utilised since SSPDC is currently in the position of carrying a small surplus of funds

Secondly, Article 6 provides for those surplus funds to be transferred to another development council for the industry. In practice, that will be the British Potato Council. I understand that that body has agreed to use the funds for the specific benefit of the Scottish seed industry.

The SSPDC has provided a valuable service to the industry, which I am pleased to acknowledge today. However, the industry is undergoing major structural change and the Scottish seed growers recognise that their interests would now be better served by the British Potato Council. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 24th June be approved [5th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Sewel.)

Lord Lyell

My Lords, perhaps I may intervene in this debate for 30 seconds. I am glad to see my neighbour, the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, waiting to succeed me. I shall not delay him for long. I was delighted to hear the Minister say that in the winding up there is a small surplus. Since by training I am a humble accountant, I looked at Articles 5 and 6.

The Minister said that there is a small surplus. It seemed encouraging to me that it will go for the specific benefit of the Scottish seed potato industry. Can he confirm to me—perhaps at a later stage—whether that is what I would call "material". I am impressed to learn that there is a small surplus in the winding up. After all that has been done for the industry over the past 14 or 15 years, I am pleased that we have come to this satisfactory conclusion. I thank the Minister for introducing the order so nicely.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I hope that this dissolution order will not cause the havoc to which the dissolution of the Potato Marketing Board contributed. We have the lowest prices today due to a surplus, which again was largely due to the lack of any control of acreage by the Potato Marketing Board.

I also hope that the Minister will confirm—can he confirm?—that no pressure was exerted on the 61 per cent. who agreed to the dissolution and the 100 per cent. who welcomed the British Seed Potato Marketing Board, if that is what it is to be called. I very much doubt whether it is a good move. Scots seed potatoes are "the" seed potatoes in Britain. We supplied the English market. We were in the healthiest area and the freest from aphids. The reputation of Scots seed potatoes is exploited by a number of people from Scotland in various markets in Europe today. We are not nearly so good at it as the Dutch, but I must say that the name of a Scots board would do a great deal more for sales than would a British name. Previously, the largest part of England was in fact a ware producing area and not a seed potato producing area.

Obviously, this is a fait accompli but I doubt whether it will be for the good of the Scottish seed potato industry in the future. It may well be. But with the Scots name and Scots direction, it would have been much better.

Furthermore, the order is totally against the trend that we have been discussing for the past few days in this House. Surely, one of the things of which the Scottish Parliament should be in control is the development of any export trade for Scottish produce. I shall not vote against the order but it does not look all that good to me.

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, I welcome the introduction by the Minister of the dissolution order. I confess that I recognise some of the history that he described as the background to it. This is an important moment for a vital industry. As the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, said, in Scotland the seed potato industry has become of especial importance in terms of job creation, exports and so forth.

The only point that I wish to raise with the Minister tonight reflects perhaps the sentiment expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, when he spotted the difference between the major legislation with which we are dealing in this House at the moment concerned with Scotland and England and the somewhat contrary Motion that this dissolution order seeks to express.

If, in a few years' time, the Scottish seed potato industry decides that it made a mistake in voting to amalgamate its interests with the British Potato Council and have its interests represented merely by a committee of that UK-wide council, will it be possible for the Scottish seed potato industry to resurrect a Scottish seed potato development council? Will that be possible in both theory and practice?

We hope that circumstances will not arise in which the seed potato industry in Scotland decides that it has made a mistake and that its interests are compromised. But should such a circumstance arise, I am sure that the House would be interested to hear the practicality of the Scots re-establishing their own council.

Lord Sewel

My Lords, let me refer to the specific points raised during the course of our brief debate. The noble Lord, Lord Lyell, asked about the surplus. One of the strongholds of the seed potato industry is the north-east of Scotland. One would expect a small surplus to be generated because of that itself. I understand that the size of the surplus is £30,000, which is not bad. It offers a chance; it makes a start.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, referred to the dissolution of the Potato Marketing Board. I share many of his views on the wisdom, or lack of it, of the dissolution of the Potato Marketing Board. But I can assure him that no pressure was exerted to secure the 61 per cent.

It is important to recognise that, within the GB context, there is recognition of the specific contribution of the Scottish seed industry and statutory recognition of the establishment of a seed sector group, which, as I said, is chaired by a specialist seed grower from the north-east of Scotland, Mr. Jim Cruikshank. So that gives the Scottish industry some identity and some comfort that its specific interests will be looked after.

We have now had a little reference to yesterday's business. The noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, perhaps misunderstands devolution. Devolution is about devolving to Scotland the ability to make decisions. That is exactly what has happened in this case. The decision was taken by the Scottish industry. Once power is devolved, it is perfectly possible and rational in many circumstances to seek administrative arrangements on a GB or UK basis. That sensible way forward has been followed on this occasion.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, may I raise just one point? Will the Minister give us an assurance that he will not promote any move to sell British whisky abroad?

Lord Sewel

My Lords, I do not think it would be a very good seller, in fact. I do not think it would achieve a great deal.

The very fair point made by the noble Earl was the possibility of resurrecting a Scottish body if, in time, it proves that the present arrangements have not worked out successfully. There will be a statutory review of the GB council in three years' time and that will provide an opportunity to review the arrangements. In those circumstances, I should have thought that, if the Scottish industry expressed dissatisfaction with the arrangements, modifications would be put in place. But at the moment it is a little premature to prejudge the success or failure of the new body.

On Question, Motion agreed to.